Hidden from view Hera was filled with a mix of awe and disgust at the sight before her. She could make out her sister, Demeter, sat on a throne with that smug smile Hera knew only too well plastered on her face. The stone palace she found herself in was formidable, large stain glass windows ran down the length of the great hall, a dozen pillars were holding up the high ceiling, beams made of the finest oak. On each of side of the pillars a torch burned brightly, leaving very few shadows for Hera to stay hidden in. It was what was between the pillars that drew Hera's interest and she crept forward, breath held. In front of the throne on either side were large cocoon structures, supported by gold frames they stood at the height of two men. The viscous fluid was translucent but Hera could not quite make out the silhouettes that writhed within. She knew she had been brought back for a purpose, why else would she have been ripped from the spirit world she was taken to when Zeus absorbed her godly vessel? Creeping to the right, keeping low to avoid detection Hera counted 12 of the cocoons. She needed to get closer to determine what creatures were being cultivated in this un-holy place. Keeping an eye on the glowering Demeter she sidled up alongside the cocoon closest to her and peered inside focusing her eyes.
Inside the cocoon she could make out the shape of a man, muscular with a strong jaw and solid physique. He was curled in the foetal position so Hera could only see the side of his face, his eyes were shut and he seemed to be sleeping but despite her limited view there was something familiar about the form inside the cocoon. Hera took a half step forward, squatting to the side of the cocoon away from her sisters eyes and strained for a closer look. She brushed against the pod and while it looked solid the glancing touch sent ripples of movement through it causing miniature waves to pulse over the beings face. He shifted, disturbed from rest, penetrating green eyes jumping open and staring straight at Hera. She recoiled in shock and could not help but let out a gasp of terror. Ares! That familiar form had been her son, born again, grown and whole.
Her sound had not gone unnoticed, as Hera backed away quickly from the cocoon and the now more furtive movements of Ares inside it she sensed a presence behind her. Standing and turning she came nose to nose with Demeter, still wearing her smug smile, who grabbed the top of Hera's arm to stop her escaping. Her sister was clothed in her usual beige dress, shimmering in the torch light the fabric fell against her body and flowed to a golden hem at her ankles. Hera could see her sisters vibrant copper hair burning in the light of the flames, seeming to flicker in time with them, but it was Demeter's knifelike stare with those green eyes that Hera found herself looking into, an evil passion danced in those eyes. Hera shivered and hoped her sister didn't feel it. "Well well well if it isn't my dear sister , come forth from the ashes. Tell me Hera, what brings you into my domain?" Demeter sneered, eyes widening threatening to look right into Hera's soul itself should they wish.
"I came to stop you, I wasn't sure what is what I was meant to stop until I saw that abomination, what reason do you have for copying my son?" Hera replied, struggling in vain in Demeter's grip, she fell still better to await an opportunity to escape. Her sister had always been the stronger of them and Hera did not want to get into a physical altercation.
"Abomination?” Demeter asked incredulously, “Why Hera these creatures are no abomination, they are the future. Future warriors Future GODS!" Demeter smiled, "And with Zeus' gold chest in my possession there won't be a soul on Earth who will be able to stop me, I am going to rebuild Olympus sister, in Zeus honour and show the humans once and for all that we Gods are not to be defied so easily!"
"Zeus' chest? What could you possible want with that?” Hera asked.
“It contains his most private possessions sister and we both know your husband was one for powerful weapons, why else would he have hidden it so well? It took me a long time but I finally know its location, and with it my dreams will be reality! All in the name of Zeus!”
“In Zeus' honour?" Hera replied, "What do you know of honour, or my husband? One night with him does not give you any claim to his possessions! And why Ares, why my son?"
"What greater warrior is there than Ares God of War, and who better to be the face of my army, who better to strike fear into the hearts of the mindless mortals so I can bend them to my will?" Demeter marched Hera towards the throne at the opposite end of the hall, "Come Hera, see what I have planned." Demeter thrust Hera to the floor in front of the throne and took her place upon it the knowing smile once again playing on her lips.
One by one the cocoons began to tear, hands pulled at the skin of the pods hanging from the golden pillars, bodies began heaving themselves out of the liquid within, dropping to the floor before standing up in front of their creator. Hera's eyes widened as the true extent of Demeter's perversion was revealed, each and every man that stood before them was Ares. She shook her head, trying to clear her senses unable to accept that what she saw was real. As if reading her mind Demeter spoke softly down at Hera, "Your eyes do not deceive you, it is Ares, thousands of times over for this is not the first batch I have created, and it won't be the last."
Demeter rose and her army stood to attention, "Go my children, to arms!" She spread her arms and the soldiers dispersed single file on either side of the throne, two lines of walking Gods. When the room was empty Demeter turned to Hera, who was still sat on the floor aghast at what she was seeing. "Speechless I see. Miracles really do happen, now get up," she roughly pulled her sister up from the ground, "I need to decide what to do with you." Hera looked around her, seeking an escape route, knowing that her sister would kill her if she did not get away. She spotted an open window behind Demeter and knew that was her best chance of getting away with her life. Hera began to circle so as to get closer, to distract Demeter from her true intentions she asked her "How? What evil has allowed you to do this?"
"Quite simple really, mixing the blood of Ares with the liquid in the pods, my own little concoction, allowed me to recreate his form over and over again. Its genius really, he is a God in every sense but one, the body is mortal. But given that all his other powers are present this will not slow me down at all. I will rebuild what was lost, Olympus will be great again, the days of glory will return and I will be Queen!" Demeter had closed her eyes during her speech and had not seen Hera backing towards the window; she opened them again and screamed, "GUARDS!" when she saw her sisters' intentions. Hera turned and ran as six Ares ran towards her, teeth bared and fists clenched. The momentum of turning threw Hera off balance and she slipped in a pool of Demeter's secret liquid landing on her hands and knees. She struggled up, regained her balance and threw herself towards the window, feeling the brush of an open hand at her ankle as she descended, fortunately it didn't grip and she fell into the shrubbery below. Hearing others drop down after her Hera wasted no time in trying to teleport and was shocked to find she couldn't, she stood and ran deep into the forest until she was sure she had lost her pursuers. Out of breath and still trying to process the atrocities she had seen Hera looked around her trying to figure her next move, if she couldn't teleport she would need somewhere to hide to think things through. She saw a mountain peak in the distance and headed towards it, hoping there was a crevice or cave she could take refuge in, where she could gain solace to formulate some sort of plan.
The fates were kind and Hera found a large cavern in which to hide, sitting on a rock she looked at her hands, covered in Demeter's un-holy liquid and tried to think.
She replayed the confrontation over and over in her mind, seeing the excited fire in Demeter's eyes as she foretold of rebuilding Olympus , of crushing the humans and ruling without mercy. She recalled how six perfect copies of her son had chased her, hunted her and how hundreds maybe even thousands awaited somewhere ready to wreak Demeter's havoc upon the world. "What greater warrior is there than Ares God of War?" Demeter's words echoed in Hera's mind, "I simply mixed Ares blood with my own concoction". The idea struck Hera as hard as if Zeus himself had a thrown a bolt and she stood up with the sheer force of it as it sprung to mind. A single word fell from her lips as a plan materialised in her mind's eye, "Xena."
Xena's head tossed from one side to the other, eyes racing beneath her closed lids, soft mumblings fell from her mouth almost inaudible and her legs swept around her as if she were running, the fur that covered her fell to her waist and her eyes opened sleepily as the cold hit her pale skin in the milky dawn. She stared at the sky for a few moments gathering her thoughts, getting flashbacks from her troubled dream. Flashes of colour clouded her mind, a faceless woman with a certain familiarity peering down and a sharp sting to her right bicep. The memory of the pain made Xena sit up sharply and check her arm. No mark or blemish was to be found and she took a deep breath trying to compose herself, she looked to her left and saw Gabrielle sleeping, her slow deep breaths calmed Xena and she smiled with the nonsense of it all, sometimes dreams were just dreams.
"Morning” came Gabrielle's voice from Xena's right, "You ready for breakfast?" Xena almost replied before she clicked on, her head swung to the right and there was Gabrielle frying fish over the campfire, her head swung left again and looked at the sleeping girl beside her, pulling back the furs that covered the figures face Xena let out a gasp as Gabrielle opened her eyes and yawned letting out a muffled "morning" at the same time.
Xena jumped to her feet and looked around her taking in the obscure scene that presented itself, there was Gabrielle at the frying pan, Gabrielle washing clothes, and another was bathing just off the campsite her bare back unmistakeable to Xena's eyes. Turning further Xena saw two Gabrielle's returning from the hunt, each carrying a rabbit, and behind her there were three Gabrielle's grooming Argo who whinnied at Xena as if asking her what the hell was going on. Xena's 360 degree observation came full circle and her eyes returned to where the sleeping Gabrielle was now sitting up and stretching, shaking off last night's slumber.
"I must be dreaming," Xena murmured eyes wide with disbelief, "Gabrielle?" she said aloud and took a step back as each woman looked to her at the sound of their name, one by one they began to wander over to her, noticing her wide eyed expression, all with concerned confusion on their faces. At least two dozen Gabrielle's were now in front of Xena whose eyes flicked furtively from one to other trying to figure out if any of them were real, if any one of them could possibly be HER Gabrielle. There was not an inkling of a difference between any of them, all were identical, and all of them were approaching backing Xena against a large rock, cornering her. "Which one of you is Gabrielle?" she asked, eyes still flicking, picking out more and more Gabrielle's emerging from the surrounding woodland.
"I'm Gabrielle" one of the women said from Xena's right, "No I'm Gabrielle" said another from Xena's left, "Xena don't be silly, it's me Gabrielle" this from one in front of her, "No you're not, I'm Gabrielle, you're a just a liar!" the first Gabrielle sneered drawing her sais from her boots and standing defensively. The third Gabrielle to speak also drew her weapons and they stood face to face in front of Xena whose eyes were still searching for any sign as to which Gabrielle was real. From the crowd a sai flew through the air, Xena managed to tilt her head quickly enough for it to miss her eye and slam instead into the rock behind her, ending up buried to hilt. "No, I'm Gabrielle." The crowd parted and another Gabrielle strode forward, for a moment Xena hoped it was her Gabby but when she looked into this one's eyes she knew it wasn't. Two more sais came through the crowd, aimed at the two Gabrielle's who were still facing off, both missed their targets and Xena had to react quickly to catch them both such was the force they were thrown with. The two Gabrielle's began to fight, each reading and parrying the others blows with ease, the crowd in front of Xena then erupted into disarray, sais flew through the air with deafening speed barely missing the bodies that were twirling spinning and flipping in front of her. Taking the opportunity whilst everyone was distracted Xena jumped to the top of the rock behind her and ran into the forest.
She ran fast, sprinting over forest debris, tree roots intent on tripping her and through low hanging branches hearing the ruckus fading from earshot, only when it was almost gone did Xena stop to catch her breath, "Thank the Gods she never picked a war cry" Xena muttered to herself, she blew out her breath causing her fringe to flutter, cooling her brow, taking a new breath in she ran on.
Xena ran through the forest, keeping a good pace, not sprinting as she was before now that the immediate danger seemed to have passed and she was sure no-one was following her, she tried to think about what could have caused multiple Gabrielle's and why her Gabby wasn't in the crowd, a worried knot settled in Xena's stomach when she thought of Gabrielle being lost and away from her, she had no idea where to start looking. A flash of blonde hair off to Xena's right caused her to stop dead, a few feet away there was a Gabrielle, this one did not have its weapons drawn and was coming from the opposite direction to Xena, she seemed to be talking but Xena could see no-one else around. Xena ran to the nearest tree and shimmied up to a branch, she leapt to another tree in front of her, quietly gaining ground on the Gabrielle, who still hadn't noticed she wasn't alone.
"I've flipped, gone crazy, I need a check-up from the neck up, what the hell was THAT!" she asked the forest, she stopped and jumped up and down, letting her arms hang loose, trying to shake off the insanity she felt sure was settling in. Xena saw this and knew this was her Gabrielle, the knot tightened with excitement as she called to her from the tree, "Gabrielle!” Gabrielle started and stood stock still, waiting. Xena jumped down from the tree and stood in front of her smiling. "Gabrielle?" she asked again, looking reproachfully at her friend waiting for her to respond, what she got wasn't expected.
"No...I...er...Gabrielle? No no I'm her twin sister...er...Carrabelle." Gabrielle stammered, throwing an awkward smile at Xena who looked confused.
"Gabrielle you can't fool me I know it's you, it's me Xena." Xena took a step forwards expecting Gabrielle to do the same, she was taken aback when Gabrielle instead backed off and drew her weapons, "Yeah yeah I know, you're ALL the real Xena, now back off!" Gabrielle stood ready but hesitant, un-willing to make the first move.
Xena's brow furrowed with confusion at her friends behaviour, then it dawned on her, "It happened to you too didn't it? You saw them, all of them? There must have been dozens! And all the same, exactly the same..." her voice trailed off as she remembered the crowd of Gabrielle's and the sudden onslaught of violence. Gabrielle looked closely at the woman in front of her, there was the usual darkness tainting them but this one seemed more in control. She realised this was her Xena, how else would she have known about the copies? And she was approaching from completely the opposite direction. She flung herself forward and embraced Xena, who returned the embrace just as fiercely, "It's really you," Gabrielle whispered.
"Of course it is, now tell me...did you see them? The copies?" Xena asked holding Gabrielle by the arms as she so often did, her piercing blue eyes unblinking.
"Yes," Gabrielle whispered, "There were loads of them, too many for me to count, and they all looked like..." The two women finished the sentence at the same time, "...you."
"Wait," Xena said, “They all looked like me? I clearly saw at least 100 Gabrielle's, who let me tell you, bring a whole new meaning to being able to pick a fight with yourself." Gabrielle looked at Xena, confusion now wrinkling her brow, "No Xena, there were copies, but they looked like you and..." a rustling in the bushes made the women jump. "It's not safe here Gabrielle, I saw a cave about a mile back come on lets go, we can try and work things out there." Xena set off at a swift pace, Gabrielle followed both women navigating the rough woodland floor with agility.
The cave was small and dingy with a thick covering of algae from floor to ceiling that gave the air a mildew taste, Xena quickly scouted the back making sure there were no rear entrances or nasty tenants lurking, poised for attack. Gabrielle collected firewood and kindling, getting the fire as hot as possible to try and drive out the dark cold that seemed to emanate from the walls themselves. Back from her thorough albeit short patrol Xena perched on a rock by the fire and drew her sword, pulling out her sharpening stone and polishing rag she began to sharpen the blade in slow easy motions. Gabrielle paced the floor muttering wildly heard the sound and tried to ignore it, to no avail. "What happened?" SCREECH "Who could have done this?" SCREECH "How is this even possible?" SCREECH. The sound was like fingernails being dragged down a blackboard, sharp and violating, amplified by the close cave walls. SCREECH...SCU-REEECH.
"XENA!" Gabrielle squealed, Xena paused mid action looking at Gabrielle, nonplussed, "Can you please, pleeease, give that a rest?" Gabrielle almost whispered, pleading.
"But I always sharpen my sword Gabrielle, it helps me think." Xena replied, using the rag to take off metal filings before picking up her stone again. Gabrielle lunged and snatched the stone from Xena's grasp, holding it tightly; squeezing it till her knuckles turned white she turned to Xena and recalled how she woke up that morning.
It was bird song that gently woke the sleeping Gabrielle from her sleep, she was laid on her front head facing off to the left, she swept her right arm out in a large angle feeling for Xena and touched a hard leather boot. "Good," she thought, "Breakfast in bed!" She let her sleep filled eyes close again, wanting to doze until she could smell the meal cooking, it wasn't often she got to lie in and she wanted to make the SCREECH! Gabrielle's eyes snapped open at the sound of shrieking stone on sword; anger began to bubble in the pit of her stomach, that bloody sword! Always being sharpened, morning noon and night...SCREECH SCREECH, the squeals seemed to overlap, surely even Xena couldn't be that fast? The sound came again, three in a row this time. Gabrielle flung herself upright and took a sharp breath in at the sight in front of her, perched everywhere she could see was Xena, and in each pair of hands there were a sword and a stone, each one being dragged down the metal in what seemed like slow motion. The noise was deafening and infuriating, Gabrielle stood up, hair tousled from last night's sleep antics and slapped her hands down over her ears, trying anything to drown out or deaden the noise that seemed to be vibrating through every bone in her body. SCREECH! one after the other they came, no let up between them, Gabrielle could feel insane laughter bubbling up within her fuelled by the burning rage she had for not getting her lay in and just the mind boggling confusion at seeing a hundred Xena's perched around her.
"STOP!" she hollered at the top of her lungs. The silence was almost as loud as the din that preceded it and Gabrielle felt those piercing blue eyes fall on her, a hundred times over. That fiery gaze to the power of one was enough to make anyone feel uncomfortable; to have it on her in this magnitude made her want to run for cover. Standing her ground, knowing that one false move could mean a chakram to the skull she smiled and whispered, "Thank you." She looked around the crowd before her, trying to avoid eye contact as much as possible but searching for the real Xena, her Xena and seeing her nowhere. They were all Xena, it was quite easy to see that the leather-bound troupe in front of her were exact copies of her best friend but although their stares were intense, none contained that fierce love she had come to recognise in her Xena's gaze.
"Gabrielle?" a voice from behind her made her spin on the spot, a Xena approached, hand extended, and an expectant look on her face. Gabrielle almost instinctively took the extended hand, but drew back when she realised the Xena beckoning to her was not hers. She shook her head, anxiety causing a flood of adrenaline to course through her veins "fight or flight Gabrielle," she thought to herself. The Xena was getting closer and Gabrielle knew that despite this creature not being her Xena, she would still be no match if a fight should break out. Xena grabbed Gabrielle's arm which she pulled away hastily taking another defensive step back. Xena's face contorted into that warrior's mask Gabrielle knew so well but had never experienced directly, teeth bared Xena drew her sword and poised ready to strike. Heart threatening to beat straight from her chest, Gabrielle looked around her, searching for any hint of escape and finding none, bushes and trees made this clearing an ideal campsite, highly private and not easily entered…or exited. She could only stand transfixed by pure terror as the sword made its descent, could hear it whistling through the air as it sliced its way towards her, her senses were so heightened that she could almost feel the air itself being pushed aside by the blade. She waited an eternity for that fatal blow to land, the sword moving in slow motion towards her and cried out when she saw in her peripheral vision a metallic blur moving in the from her right hand side. The chakram split the sword in two and sent sparks flying in all directions. The attacking Xena looked around her, eyes bulging as she looked for the culprit, she uttered a low growl as she spotted the Xena who had thrown it. Gabrielle's defender stepped forward, taking her turn to draw her own sword and said through gritted teeth, "Back off, or I'll make you wish you'd never been born." The two women faced off, one with sword in hand, the other with her fingers dancing, ready to draw her own chakram, Gabrielle's line of sight switched from one Xena to another wondering which would make the first move, getting ready to run when they did. It was her defender who struck first, letting out and angry war cry as she struck her first blow which the other Xena parried with her chakram, sparks once again flew as the weapons clashed and other Xena's who had gathered to watch the fight shielded their eyes. Gabrielle seized her moment and dropped to the floor, she crawled past the two warring Xena's and rose to a crouch, walking as fast as she could at that level towards a gap in the clearing into which she could lose herself in the forest beyond. The crowd was livening up, the violence was kick starting the lust for blood each Xena thrived on it was getting them excited and they began to jostle against one another for the best view of the fight. Gabrielle felt knees and boots pounding into her from all directions, concentrating on dulling the pain, ignoring her falls, getting up and focusing on the gap in the clearing she managed to crawl away.
Gabrielle stopped talking and looked at Xena who smiled apologetically and hastily dropped her sharpening stone. "Have you ever seen this sort of power before?” Gabrielle asked. "No never, not even on my travels in Chin. First thing in the morning we'll head into town, see if anyone knows anything, someone with this sort of power won't be able to stay hidden for long." Xena replied, lying down on the ground close to the fire, "Come on Gabrielle, let's sleep, and maybe something will crop up."
Gabrielle walked to a space near the fire and also laid down, she shivered, chilly with no furs to lay on despite the healthy fire they had going, curling into the foetal position she willed her muscles to stop shaking, closing her eyes she prayed for sleep. A few uncomfortable minutes later and Gabrielle heard Xena shift in her sleep, feeling a pang of jealousy she drew into herself even more. Jealousy at Xena's ability to sleep gave way to utter gratitude as she felt an arm curl over her back, the other slipping under her neck and drawing her in. She felt Xena's body against hers and was enveloped by warmth, a surge of heat flowed through her as she felt Xena's breath on her cheek and she was finally able to relax, the familiar strength of the warrior princess at her back finally allowing gentle waves of sleep to wash over Gabrielle who let them drift her to rest.
Xena woke first, instincts sending a surge of adrenaline through her as she sensed a presence behind her, looking down she saw Gabrielle was asleep and had rolled onto her side during the night, now facing away from her. Xena needed a weapon but her chakram and sword were on the other side of the fire, slowly, feigning sleep, she reached down and plucked one of Gabrielle's sais from her boot. With lightning speed she was on her feet, holding the weapon prone against attack, she almost dropped it when she saw who was standing before her.
"Hera?" she asked, confused, knowing that the Queen of the Gods had been destroyed many years ago during the fight against Zeus. But Hera it was, stood in front of her, a pale shadow of the Queen of the Gods she used to be. She wore dishevelled black robes that were torn in places, dirty marks marred Hera's gaunt face. She looked haunted, but Xena didn't let this fool her, with Hera, anything was possible. Gabrielle stirred at the sound of Xena's voice and turned, seeing Xena standing she also raced to her feet, simultaneously reaching for and seeing her sai in Xena's hand and re adjusting to pull the other one.
"Yes Xena," Hera replied, taking a step forward she motioned to the sai in Xena's hand, "That won't be necessary let me assure you." Instead of dropping the sai however, the step Hera had taken made her raise it slightly higher ready for anything. "Ok, I can see you don't trust me, not surprising but please, hear me out."
Xena raised an eyebrow and motioned with a hand for Hera to proceed.
"The fates have returned me to this realm to retrieve a chest that belonged to my husband, a chest they thought until now I only knew the whereabouts of. It seems another also knows where to find the chest and I have been sent to stop them."
"And how is this my problem?" Xena asked, shifting her stance, still ready to attack should Hera make a false move.
"What Xena means," Gabrielle said, stepping forward and placing a hand on Xena's arm, "Is how this involves us?"
"The chest is said to contain Zeus' most beloved possessions, maybe even a weapon and if this is true the world will suffer terribly if it should fall into the wrong hands." Hera explained.
"Still not getting where we come into this Hera, spill." Xena snarled patience short with one of the Olympian Gods who had so long ago declared war on her daughter.
"The other person that knows the chests location is my sister, Demeter. She has laid claim to it after my husbands...indiscretion. I saw her in her castle, she is tampering with things beyond nature to get what she wants, and if she does she won't be content with just getting her hands on Zeus' chest..."
"I heard she already got her hands on more than that." Xena murmured from the side of her mouth, Gabrielle smirked and threw an elbow to Xena's ribs, Hera continued oblivious, "She intends to use whatever weapon Zeus hid to rebuild Olympus, with her at its head, she intends to enslave mankind and rule without mercy and I have seen first-hand that she has got the means to do so."
"OK," Xena said, dropping the sai now that she was sure Hera was not going to attack, "Big bad for the world if Demeter gets the chest but I still don't see how or why we would help you, in case you've forgotten, the Gods tried to kill my daughter, they even succeeded once and killed Gabrielle, not mention using the Furies to try and get Gabrielle to do their dirty work first...forgive me for not leaping into action but you've hardly been a helpful bunch."
"I truly understand that the Olympian Gods were not always your greatest allies but we cannot let past misgivings stop us from preventing disaster now, if Demeter is not stopped the world will pay, and do not forget Xena that while my husband sought to destroy you it was I who led Hercules to the dagger of Cronus, and it was I who gave my life to make sure he was able to escape and protect you." A hint of anger darkened Hera's brow and Xena once again raised the sai.
"Ok Hera, point made, so how is Demeter going to get this chest? And what can we do to stop her?"
"My sister has perverted nature to make sure that victory will be hers, fortunately for us I was able to steal her secret and use it to our advantage, let me show you," Hera reached out a palm towards Xena's cheek, the warrior raised the sai higher, ready to dodge a blow, the palm rested gently on her cheek and closing her eyes she saw flashes of images. A cocoon, Demeter laughing, Hera being thrown to the floor, a hand covered in a thick milky liquid and a platoon of soldiers from behind, she drew in her breath as the scene played out, as the soldiers faces came into view. Her eyes snapped open, "Ares." she whispered. Xena took a step back not wanting to believe what she had been shown. Gabrielle gripped Xena's forearm, steadying her, confusion on her face, "Xena what's wrong?"
"Ares. All Ares. Identical." Xena regained her senses and looked at Gabrielle, "Demeter has made copies of Ares, there are legions of him, and they all look the same." Gabrielle looked at Hera, sure that she had done something to Xena, trying to make sense of what she was saying.
"It's true, but lucky for us during my escape I managed to get some of the liquid Demeter uses to make these...these copies and use it myself. I knew there were only two people in this world who are a match for Ares, so I found you and..."
"Made copies of us!" Gabrielle finished the sentence as everything fell into place. It was her turn to be speechless and she sat down on a nearby rock to gather herself.
"Great idea Hera, but Ares is a God, no mortal, no matter how many of them there are can take on Gods, and Eli took my power away." Xena said, "So your great idea just crashed and burned."
"Demeter told me that while Ares will have his Godly powers, the bodies she is creating are mortal, and can be destroyed, they are just shells Xena, please...you and Gabrielle are the only ones able to stand in her way, the only ones strong enough to take on Ares...and win." Hera looked pleadingly at Xena and Gabrielle, who had risen to her feet. They looked at each other, a knowing look passed between them, joint acknowledgment with no words spoken. "Alright Hera, we're in, where's the chest?"
"In a large clearing a mile East of here, no one knows the exact spot where it is buried but it is said to be holy and therefore no stain can mark it."
"Fine, we'll need time to prepare." Xena handed Gabrielle her sai and walked to her sword, sheathed it and holstered her chakram, "Come on Gabrielle, we've got a team to put together."
"Hurry Xena, Demeter is due to arrive at the clearing at any moment. Her army is mustering on the other side of the ridge to the East." Xena waved a hand at Hera as she and Gabrielle jogged out of the cave. "Good luck." she whispered before making her way back to her cavern.
"We need to find our copies and convince them to fight," Xena said as they jogged back through the forest, twigs and branches breaking underfoot, haste more than stealth the name of the game, "Which going by the ruckus I left this morning is not going to be easy."
"Well your copies weren't exactly a picnic," Gabrielle replied, keeping pace with her companion, "Maybe we should each go to our own copies...who better than to talk them into fighting than us. I mean them...I mean...you know what I mean." Xena smiled and nodded her head, amused by Gabrielle's confusion. They fell into an easy silence as they navigated the forest eventually arriving to where they had found each other earlier. Xena looked around her and gestured to a clearing off to their left, "That trail will take you to your copies." Gabrielle made to run off but Xena grabbed her arm pulling her to a bush bearing ripe red berries, she picked a bunch and mashed them underfoot, covering her thumb in the juice she held Gabrielle's head in her hands and brushed her cheeks leaving 2 broad lines. "So I know which one you are," she smiled, "Gabrielle when you find your copies I want to stay away from that battleground, all of you. I couldn't watch you die again, even if it is a copy, leave Ares to me." Gabrielle rolled her eyes, pre-empting such a demand from her friend, she stooped and gathered some berry juice of her own, "Xena, how do think it will be for me to watch the exact same thing? Hera cloned us both so we could both fight," she ran three lines down each of Xena's cheeks, "So how about you don't argue and we just don't die ok?" Xena opened her mouth to protest but Gabrielle threw her a steely look that stopped the words before they were formed and she fell silent, choosing to pull Gabrielle into an embrace instead, "Good luck." she whispered. “See you on the other side." Gabrielle replied and the two women split up.
Gabrielle ran down the trail Xena had pointed out for what seemed an eternity (just how fast did Xena run?), just as she was starting to convince herself she had
missed the group she saw bushes with their leaves scattered on the ground, a tree with a large chunk missing from its trunk and knew she couldn't be far. She ran straight into the camp, what was left of it. Looking around Gabrielle saw carnage, every tree had multiple sais lodged in its trunk, those that had missed the trees had ripped through the shrubbery leaving it shredded and now lay discarded on the ground, too many to count. Raising her eyebrows, not knowing whether to feel proud or afraid Gabrielle poked through the debris looking for a fresh trail for her clearly absent peers, "Don't know my own strength." she whispered as she searched. Her words, barely audible caused a stir in the bushes just outside the camp, as yet undamaged. A single Gabrielle came into view, perplexion rippling her brow, another face came into view on Gabrielle's left, then another on her right, one by one the Gabrielle's came out of hiding when they were sure there was no threat. Seeing a crowd of herself in front of her unnerved Gabrielle but she did not outwardly show this, instead she raised her hands showing that she was unarmed, "I come in peace," she said, keeping her voice clear and unwavering, "I need your help."
"Where's Xena?" a Gabrielle on the left asked as she pulled two sais free from a tree trunk.
"She's getting ready, we need to help her." Gabrielle replied, lowering her hands, watching as her copies spread out, each retrieving and thankfully sheathing their sais .
"Help her? Why? What's happening?" Another Gabrielle, this time on the right. Taking a deep breath, not wanting to have too many questions she began to explain what was happening.
Talking to herself went better than she had expected, her copies seemed to accept the logic of their existence, looking at each other and nodding. They all showed simultaneous shocked expressions when Gabrielle explained about Ares and when she had finished they rose as one, each wearing the same determined look, knowing what must be done. Gabrielle smiled inwardly, hardly believing her luck at how easy her task had been, "The clearing is a couple of miles east of here, we should get going." She lead her army back down the trail and hoped Xena was having as much luck as she had.
Following the easy trail Gabrielle had left in wake of her escape Xena stopped dead, hearing a sound in the distance, familiar but at the same time foreign to her. She dropped to her front as three chakrams skimmed past her, one grazing the top of her right shoulder, leaving a small slice which made Xena wince, she looked behind her and saw the three blades lodged in various trees and knew it wouldn't be long before their owners showed up. As if reading her mind she heard footsteps ahead of her and barely had time to get to her feet before finding three blades at her throat. Using her right hand she moved them, "Get those out of my face we've got business to discuss." she snapped, attempting to walk forwards. Three hands held her back, looking down at them and then back into the eyes of the owners she snarled, "If you want to keep those you'll remove them." The three Xena's in front of her were unperturbed; they did remove their hands but only to wield their swords more effectively. Xena sighed; this was going to be harder than she thought. The Xena on the left looked her up and down ( something that sent eerie shivers down Xena's spine), "Who are you to speak to us like that, you're no different to the rest of us, except for that berry juice on your face." she sniggered, running a finger down Xena's face. Losing patience but knowing she was no match for three of herself, Xena stared herself straight in the eye, "I am Xena, the real Xena. You and you and you," she looked at each of them in turn, "are copies Hera made to fight Ares." At the mention of the God of Wars name all three of the women stiffened; "Now either you let me past, we go to the camp and I explain everything, or I beat you so badly you won't have a choice." She looked at the Xena who had spoken, not breaking her stare lest they see weakness. She watched the familiar expressions on their faces as they processed what little information they had been given, knowing full well what questions were rising in their minds, eyeing herself, wondering if her own breasts looked that good in her armour. She waited a few more moments before making her move, knowing that if these women were anything like her they wouldn't accept her flimsy speech and would press for more, taking up more time which was against her. Letting out her loudest war cry Xena leapt up and over the three copies, using the split second she knew she had to take off at speed towards the camp she could hear in the distance.
She could feel the footfalls behind her, and was glad Hera hadn't cloned a younger version of herself, they were keeping pace at most and without their chakrams the Xena's behind posed no threat, for the moment anyway. As she sprinted she could hear dozens of war cries echoing through the stillness of the forest and inwardly winced. Was that really how it sounded? No wonder people had run from her. She ran to the edge of the camp and saw chaos; everywhere she looked there were Xena's fighting Xena's, swords clashing, chakrams ripping through the air. Miraculously not a drop of blood had been spilt. Readying herself for the inevitable animosity she shouted, "Hey!" A few Xena's stopped their brawling and looked at her, she shouted again, louder, "HEY!" this time all eyes were on her, even the three that had given chase had stopped in their tracks. Hundreds of steely gazes fell on her, clearing her throat Xena called out, "We need to stop fighting and leave now! There's an army out there that we need to stop...so er...let's go!" She saw the Xena's look to each other, and couldn't quite fix on what their reaction was going to be. She was so engrossed in gauging the reaction she didn't hear the chakram that came from her right until too late. She was cut again, this time a gouge that Xena instantly knew would leave a scar. She whipped her head around, looking for the culprit, no-one moved; she watched and waited knowing that the chakram would return to its owner. The chakram twisted in the air and flew back towards her, Xena had to again drop to her front to avoid decapitation, and she still wasn't quick enough and got another slice, this time to her left arm. Mid-drop Xena's peripheral vision picked up the copy that had thrown it, she tucked and rolled, rising almost as soon as she had hit the ground, "That's it!" she hissed through gritted teeth, it was going to have to be the hard way. Hoping she could still surprise herself, Xena turned towards her attacker, drew her sword and ran towards her, screaming as loud as she could.
Gabrielle led her copies to the clearing Hera had spoken of, she and her copies crept through the undergrowth trying to be stealthy lest Demeter had set an ambush. Gabrielle felt an uneasy knot tighten in her stomach as they crept closer to edge of the forest, she could see no sign of Xena, and she prayed things had gone as well for her companion as they had done for her, although given the princess' volatile nature seriously doubted it. Getting as close to the edge of the treeline as she dared Gabrielle raised a hand and signalled everyone to halt. She crept forward a little more and her eyes widened at the sight in the distance. Silhouettes of an all too familiar form were lining up on the other side of the dell that was to become the battlefield, Gabrielle breathed deeply, mentally praying for Xena to show up and do what she did best, at the same time fearing she would not arrive at all. She crept back to the army of herself, wondering if she should say anything or if they would already know what she was going to say. She opted to speak, "I don't really know what to say to you all, I mean this an incredibly strange situation. What I do know is that we are here to fight, because if we don't the world will pay."
"Where's Xena?" a copy asked further back in the crowd, murmurs began to rise within the group as they seconded the question. Gabrielle raised her hands to silence them, "Xena went to find her own copies, I know she will be here but until then we have to stand our ground, we need to FIGHT! We are here for the same reason Xena is, because we can hold our own, now let's go out there and do what needs to be done!" The Gabrielle's stirred into action at the words and drew their sais , pumped and ready for battle. Thankful that her nervousness had not shown through Gabrielle led them out into the clearing, atop the hill in the distance she could now make out individual Ares copies, all punching their hands, loosening their necks, ready for carnage.
Two figures appeared in the centre of the clearing, Hera and Demeter faced each other, bodies tensed per-empting the other attack without warning, and they began circling each other, poised and ready. "It's not too late to back down sister," Demeter snarled, "There is no greater warrior than my nephew, even the mighty Xena is no match for him, and neither is that irritating blonde she travels with! Why sacrifice their lives to try and keep me from what is rightfully mine?" Hera flushed with anger, feeling it boil her blood at Demeter's wild claims, "Rightfully yours? He was my husband ; no-one knew or loved him more than I did. You were like a serpent, you tricked him into being with you and now stand here talking of rights! Don't under estimate Xena and Gabrielle, they have overcome Ares before, and will again, it is you who should consider surrender...sister" she hissed the last word, lacing it with the hatred that burned in her chest.
"I assure you Hera, there was no trickery or illusion in Zeus' decisions, his will was very much his own. This petty squabbling gets us nowhere, if you insist on fighting me then LET IT BEGIN!
“Keep the lines tight, and remember, his body is mortal, if you cut him he will bleed. Wait for my signal, if he gets too much we can retreat to the trees." Gabrielle said as she heard Demeter's cry. She began to stride forward, as did the Ares copies, unsheathing her own sais she began to jog lightly, building speed, also matched by the oncoming troops. She broke into a sprint, picked out an individual copy from the crowd and headed straight for him, an adrenalized fuelled cry bursting from her. Her copies did the same, each picking out their own man, bearing down on him, almost flying through the air. The grass disappeared at blistering speed under Gabrielle's feet and she threw herself into her foe.
Gabrielle felt the air around her boom as the two armies met, hers considerably smaller but just as ferocious, all around her she heard moans and grunts as Ares after Ares fell, the air occasionally pierced with a shrill scream as one her copies fell. A cacophony of noise filled the air, bolts flew left right and centre as Ares used his powers to strike from a distance. Sais were returned in force, whistling through the air, thumping into their targets, a chest a leg a neck. Blood began to spill onto the ground and seep into the mud below. Gabrielle fought harder than she ever had before; using all the skills Xena had taught her to defend herself against bigger, stronger foes. She twirled and twisted, sais slashing the air, finding a target with almost every blow. The onslaught was endless but Gabrielle was afforded a brief moment to look around her, everywhere she looked she could see bodies littering the ground, mercifully there seemed to be more Ares slain than Gabrielle's at this point but she could see her numbers shrinking. She caught sight of one particular copy fighting a group of four Ares, slashing and slicing with all her might and felling three, her final spin however saw her stomach impaled on a sword, this then thrust upwards. Gabrielle saw the pain in the copies eyes as she left this world for the next, her lifeless body shaken off with no thought, the wielder already setting his sights on another target. A huge explosion rocked the earth and Gabrielle spun looking for the cause, she saw another bolt leave Demeter's hand and another thunderous explosion send three of her copies flying, thankfully they all rose and continued to fight, but Gabrielle knew to continue like this would be suicide. "Retreat! To the trees!" she bellowed, using hand signals to re-affirm her instructions she sprinted for the cover of the forest, knowing that her (and hopefully her copies) Amazon instincts would kick in and they would be able to divide Ares into groups and take him down more effectively. "Get into the trees!" she yelled again and was grateful to see her copies follow the command, climbing the trees and leaping from branch to branch, dropping on Ares from above. A few fell to floor after bolts were thrown into the thicket, they did not go down without a fight however and continue to battle despite their injuries. Gabrielle again parried and thrust her way through a group of Ares, she could feel the ground vibrating gently under her feet and thought it was Demeter hurling more of her bolts into the woodland, but heard no after explosion and saw no fire. The vibrations grew till it seemed the trees themselves would fall if it got much harder. One by one the combatants stopped to see what was happening, Gabrielle and Ares alike, their fight, for the moment at least, coming second to their curiosity. Within seconds the war had paused, everyone looking deeper into the forest, waiting.
A wave of brown leather spilled through the brush, washing away the Ares clones in a turbulent blur of steel and chakram. Gabrielle's heart soared as she saw hundreds of Xena's, all with that furied fire burning in their eyes, each with their jaws set as they went to work, all issuing their war cries when their targets were found. Oddly they all seemed to have black eyes and bruises too, Gabrielle wasted no time being confused instead she eagerly searched for her Xena, wading through the crowd, picking off an errant Ares or two as she did. The Ares at last seemed to be on the retreat, drawing the Xena's and Gabrielle's back out into the open field, but there was such ferocity about the copies now it did not seem to matter. The cries were deafening, all around her she heard SHEEEEEE-UH, high pitched and echoed by another a moment later, this was worse than the sword sharpening by far, she tried to drown it and was thrilled when through the shrieks she heard her name.
"Gabrielle!" she swung her head in the direction it came from, heart elated once more when her Xena came into view. Her elation soon gave way to worry when she saw that Xena was hurt, a cheekbone was bleeding and the eye above blackened and swelling. Xena's arms were laden with slices and wounds which were also spilling precious blood onto the forest floor. None of the wounds seemed life threatening but it was clear Xena could not move with her usual agility and pace. Gabrielle ran to her, throwing her arms around her friend, waves of relief washing over her, amplified when she felt Xena's arm fall over her shoulders and pull her tight. "I was worried." Gabrielle said, looking up into the warriors eyes, she was met with a typical Xena eyebrow rise and smirk "About what?" the princess replied, "Everything was under control...once I showed them who was boss. Now come on, let's go and finish this, can't let us have all the fun." Gabrielle smiled, and raised her sais as Xena drew her sword, together the two women ran back out into the clearing, both fighting with a new found strength.
Hera dodged another of Demeter's fireball bolts, this one closer than the last, knowing her sister would eventually get the better of her. She threw a return bolt but it shot well wide of the mark, desperately she began to look around for the piece of ground that had not been tainted by blood. It was easy to spot, the battlefield was soaked with blood and the green grass stood out against the stark red, easily showing where Zeus' chest lay. Demeter also spotted the patch of grass and began to push towards it, hurling more and more bolts, not taking time to aim, Hera seized the opportunity to time a well-aimed bolt of her own that sent her sister sprawling. She began to make her way towards the chests location but was grabbed by rough hands from behind and felt her feet leave the ground; she felt the air whirling round her as she flew, landing roughly on uneven ground. Her wrist screeched with white hot pain and she could tell it was broken but knew she had no time to give it thought, she struggled to get to her feet, and stopped when her sister appeared, bearing over her, gleeful evil dancing in her eyes. Hera saw the fate of the human race reflected in those eyes, the slavery, debauchery and the out and out chaos of a world ruled without mercy or discipline. Demeter formed a fireball in her palm, taking her time, wanting to savour the moment she finally got to end her worthless sister's life. Her hand lifted and Hera cried out, fear pulsing through her entire body at the thought of her failure and her ultimate return to the afterlife.
Xena jumped high in the air, legs wide, catching two Ares copies firmly in the chin, the blow flooring them but not for long. They got up again and came at her, a third joined the fray and grabbed Xena from behind, big arms wrapping around her, threatening to squeeze the breath from her body. As she felt her feet come away from the ground Xena caught a glimpse of Hera laid on the floor, Demeter bearing down on her with a bolt in her hand. A surge of adrenaline surged through Xena; she flung her head back, breaking her captors' nose sending yet more blood to be absorbed by the soil. Xena dropped back to the ground and immediately coiled her muscles, spring boarding from the grass with all her might, she twisted in mid-air, scything through it above the two Ares she had been fighting, leaving them to be mere spectators. As her twist came to an end Xena unleashed her chakram, sending it with vicious purpose towards Demeter. The chakram sliced through the air, the grace of the gods meaning it avoided any collision with anyone until it reached its intended target. It zipped across the battlefield, making its way past groups of groups of copies from all sides fighting, their weapons clashing. Xena heard a shriek echo across the field as she landed and instantly knew her chakram had found its mark, she had landed with her back to the spot where Demeter had been, and she turned on her heel in time to snatch the blade back out of the air and see Demeter's hand fall to the floor. The goddess wailed, holding her butchered wrist close, her godly blood spilling copiously, her very life draining from her body. Hera seized the opportunity and sent a bolt of her own directly to Demeter's chest, causing the woman to teeter before falling to her back; it was now Hera who towered above her sister looking down at her as she wept for her life. "I told you not to under estimate Xena sister, no-one fights for just purpose harder than she does, and no-one can claim as many victories when they do so." Demeter could do nothing but gurgle on her own blood as Hera stepped over her, walking to the still untainted patch of ground under which lay Zeus' chest. Ares copies flew at her from all sides but were no match for Hera who sent bolts to their chests, and their souls to Tartarus. Xena made her way over to Hera, flanking her left side, helping keep her safe until she reached the grass. Gabrielle was fighting so hard she failed to notice that she was fighting thin air. She looked towards Xena, and also made her way to Hera's side.
Demeter's fall had stopped the battle, all participants looking on at the events unfolding. As one the Gabrielle's all dropped their arms to their sides, glad of the break in proceedings all breathing heavily from their exertions. The Xena's were not so quick to drop their guard and remained prone, ready for anything. The few Ares that remained had all eyes fixed on their leader as she lay, struggling for breath. Her chest heaved as she tried in vain to draw air in through the blood that bubbled from her mouth, Hera turned to watch her sisters last moments, saying nothing and keeping her face straight, Demeters chest rose once more and stuck there and then in the next instant, she was still, her last breath draining from her, lifeless eyes staring straight to the heavens. Triggered by their creators demise, the fallen Ares copies that littered the ground began to disappear, simply evaporating into the air leaving only crushed grass as proof they were there at all, the Ares that still lived looked nervously to each other, anticipating what was to happen next, and sure enough one by one they too dissolved into the air around them leaving barely noticeable traces of existence.
Hera had reached the sacred ground under which the chest they had fought for lay ready for excavation. The remaining Gabrielle and Xena's gathered too in a small circle, wanting to see what was inside the hidden treasure. The original Xena and Gabrielle flanked Hera on each side as she knelt to the ground, put her hands together and began to mutter an inaudible incantation. Everyone took a step back as the unmarked ground began to crumble away, leaving a hole in the earth out of which a chest of gold rose, dirt and rubble began falling into the abyss but once the chest was clear the ground reappeared beneath it. No one breathed, all tense at the unveiling of the chests contents, all wondering what cataclysmic weapon lay within. Hera tipped back the lid and gasped when she saw what lay within. Xena looked into the chest and wondered what the fuss was about, there was nothing of note in the chest at all, a few scrolls and what looked like a marble tablet with an engraving of Zeus and Hera on it. "We fought a thousand Ares', for this?" she asked, disgusted at the effort and the danger Gabrielle and herself had been put in, unimpressed by the tears that sprang to Hera's eyes as she handled the scrolls.
"These are the scrolls that Zeus and I wrote to each other when we first met, declaring our love, and this," she picked up the marble tablet, tears spilling down her cheeks as she ran her fingertips along the etchings, "this was the first carving of us after we were married." She stood, the treasures gathered to her chest, "Thank you Xena, and you Gabrielle, you have both prevented a great injustice today, and given a tired wife the peace she craves at last."
"I thought you said there would be a weapon in that box," Xena said gesturing, "Instead we get to see Zeus' photo album and love scroll collection.
“I only knew that the chest contained his most prized possession, nothing more, I was wrong to assume it was a weapon, but Demeter would have still tried to take the world, chest or not. You saved the world Xena and for that I am grateful."
Xena tutted and rolled her eyes, "I thought it was going to be something powerful."
"But what greater power is there than love?" Gabrielle asked, gripping Xena's arm, "If we don't have love, we have nothing to fight for."
"I suppose you're right Gabrielle, and at least we got to kick Ares ass on a grand scale. I sure loved that." Xena smiled as Gabrielle shook her head in exasperation.
"My time has come to return to the afterlife," Hera said, "Thank you again." She turned and walked away from them, manoeuvring through the fallen Xena's and Gabrielle's before disappearing completely. When she did so the bodies of the fallen also disappeared, leaving only Xena and Gabrielle, along with 4 of each of their copies stood alone in the clearing.
"So," Xena said, putting her arm around Gabrielle, "What now? What do we do with...you know?" she pointed to the remaining copies, "Shouldn't they have disappeared too?" Gabrielle shrugged, "I don't know, this is still kind of unchartered territory for me. But look, I think the world is putting itself in order." The two companions watched as each of their copies paired with the other and began to walk away, looking back only to nod to their originals, wordlessly wishing them luck.
"It seems no matter how many of us there are, we're still destined to be a pair," Gabrielle said, resting her head on Xena's shoulder, "And with this many of us out there, the world will truly be a safer place...right?"
"We certainly are two sides of the same dinar Gabrielle, and with that many pairs of us out there it means we can get a holiday. I'm thinking that Nile cruise?" Xena replied, turning them both and leading them in their own direction, Gabrielle smiled up at her friend, love once more threatening to burst her heart from her chest. As they walked away Gabrielle spoke quietly, "Xena?"
"Can I ask you a favour?"
"Of course, anything."
"Can you please change your war cry? I think if I hear it one more time I may actually go insane."
"You know Gabrielle; I was thinking exactly the same thing."
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